The Fiercer Heart: A Novel of Love and Obsessionby Micaela Gilchrist
This is the story of an American love affair.Intimate and painfully real, this epic tale from the pages of history is based on the lives of vivacious and iron-willed Diana Bullitt, a Southern woman from an illustrious colonial family, and General Philip Kearny, one of the Union's legendary military leaders, a dissolute and passionate man descended from two
This is the story of an American love affair.Intimate and painfully real, this epic tale from the pages of history is based on the lives of vivacious and iron-willed Diana Bullitt, a Southern woman from an illustrious colonial family, and General Philip Kearny, one of the Union's legendary military leaders, a dissolute and passionate man descended from two centuries of New York aristocracy.
In antebellum America, a time when appearances are paramount, Kearny introduces his beautiful young bride to a mesmerizing world of opulence and power. But Diana's tranquil existence soon ends when Kearny joins his cavalry company in Mexico and returns home from the war mutilated and suffering from trauma.
Though Diana struggles to free Philip of his demons, she discovers that she must either follow her conscience and begin a new life for herself or submit to societal pressure and ignore Philip's devastating addictions and his indiscreet liaisons with other women. Rebelling against her husband, Diana embarks on a perilous journey, experiences the full power of her own abilities, and changes profoundly, shedding her provincial ideas of wifely duty and propriety.
Even as Philip's and Diana's twin destinies spiral inexorably toward disaster with the impending Civil War, the couple is entrapped by the persistence of their desire, their pride, and their abiding love for each other.
Micaela Gilchrist uses privately held correspondence, unpublished diaries, and family legends to create an unforgettable love story inspired by historical figures and actual events.
- Simon & Schuster
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The Fiercer HeartA Novel of Love and Obsession
By Micaela Gilchrist
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2005 Micaela Gilchrist
All right reserved.
It is a fact of natural history that a beautiful woman can destroy a man's life with very little effort. I first saw Diana Bullitt in 1838, a year after having been commissioned into the First Dragoons. Shortly thereafter, I reported for duty at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Upon arriving, I hunted up the post commander but his aides told me I would find the general and his sister-in-law on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Riding through the green woods and nearing a clearing surrounded by lilac bushes, I heard the general advising, "Diana, release the bow in between breaths. Now, don't look at me, girl, look at the target."
I dismounted, tied my horse, and walked around the deep shrubbery. There, in the clearing, where the light came pouring through the oak trees, I saw her sitting on a bay horse. She placed the arrow against the bowstring, aimed the bow at the paper target and with vigorous grace, released the shaft. Delighted with her efforts, she turned laughingly to her brother-in-law, the general, as her black hair tumbled out of its pins. She was highly animated, leaning forward on the pommel of her saddle, her dark eyes shining with victory, her face bright and a high color in her cheek. I think she must have caught my movement because she peered in my direction.
But I stepped back into the shadows, felt my chest constrict and a palpitation of the heart that made me double over and gasp for breath. Goddamn, I thought, I am having an apoplectic fit. I staggered back to my horse, vowing that no woman would ever unhinge me again. I am a soldier first, a man of mark in society and in the cavalry, and could not let myself be distracted by the trifling beauty of a nineteen-year-old girl.
A few days later, the general introduced me to Diana Bullitt. The commander made it excruciatingly clear to me that Diana, being the niece of the famous explorer William Clark, and descended from one of the finest old colonial families, was the sort of girl I might marry but must never lead astray under penalty of losing my testicles and my life, in that order. Autumn dissolved into winter, but still, I did not court her. I visited the commanding general's house on official business every day, and would ride up to see Diana on the balcony, leaning over the railing as she admired me. Yet, through all of those wintry months, I did not touch her. It went no further than talk.
She, being bound by propriety, by her upbringing and her class, would not even take my arm as we walked up the steps together. At regimental cotillions, I did not dance with her as I have utter contempt for dancing fops. Besides, I disliked being lovesick over her, despised my weak feelings of jealousy as I watched her circle the dance floor tormenting the poor set of devils who had fallen in love with her. It was time to be my old self again, moving unfettered and superior to the herd.
In the spring of 1839, President Van Buren ordered me to a cavalry school in France to study mounted warfare. Hoping to be free of her, I left America, and within two weeks of arriving at Saumur in the Loire Valley, I bedded eleven grateful French women. I was certain that Diana would soon fade from memory.
When the Arabs in the military colony around Algiers broke the peace and massacred French troops, I boldly joined my comrades, selflessly dedicated myself to the French cause, and fought the Arab rebels in the Atlas Mountains of French North Africa. For my courage on the battlefield, King Louis Philippe tried to award me a Cross of the Legion of Honor, but being an American army officer I could not accept the medal and the French princes said no dragoon in their army could equal my eclat.
But at night, in camp, when we built fires of mimosa in the blue shadows of the mountains, I could not help but think about Diana Bullitt. I worried that in my absence she had married some dandified millionaire from Ohio who'd made a fresh fortune in quick lime or packthread. Imagining this to be true, I smothered my indignation and with the utmost contempt for her fictional husband, pushed Diana out of my thoughts.
One year later, I returned to New York City and, upon reading the papers, learned that Diana's brother-in-law, the old general, was in town. I called upon him at the Astor House Hotel. With a sly look, the general pulled me aside, swirled the bourbon in his glass, and said, "Why, Lieutenant Kearny, haven't you heard the news? Several prominent men are courting Miss Diana Bullitt. Her mother writes that she would be surprised if Diana is not married by the shut of the year."
Taking two horses and a valise with clean shirts, I bid the general good-bye and sped off immediately for Louisville, Kentucky.
So you see, in my singularly noble way, I was trying to save Diana Bullitt from marrying the wrong fellow, one who was too much her inferior. But my fine intentions nearly destroyed me. Diana pierced my heart like a poison stinger that I spent the rest of my life trying to dislodge.
Copyright 2005 by Micaela Gilchrist
My mother sold me into marriage on my birthday, on the thirteenth day of June 1841, for the price of two houses and all of the Chantilly cake I could ever wish to eat. Now, this is the truth. And if you wish to know the truth about any family, you must ask the youngest child -- which would be me. I had expected to marry a merchant, a man like my father, and after a long and genteel courtship, go swanning about in yellow lace and orange blossoms. But my new husband told me not to despair. Taking my hand he said, "Come out, Diana Bullitt. Follow me away and you shall stand in bold relief before all the world." Bold relief, indeed! Sixteen years later, I certainly did stand in bold relief before the world and what a disaster that turned out to be.
And so it happened that I was married after supper on my birthday without having given the matter any thought upon waking. At Mama's urging, I had been away visiting a friend, and on that day, I came strolling down Jefferson Street in Louisville, Kentucky, with my hat tied by the ribbons about my waist, carrying a basket with a Chantilly cake that my friend's mother had given me.
But as I turned the corner, I saw crowds of strangers milling around on the long stone porch of my house. Large red blankets flagged over the sills of every window fronting the street. I knew what those red rags meant -- we had been ruined.
When he died, my father had been the richest man in Kentucky. But now, we Louisville Bullitts were financially deranged. While I was away, our house had been seized by creditors and put up for auction with red banners flying from the windows signaling that everything, including the servants, was for sale. Strangers waltzed through the front door as if they owned the place. Seething with dread, I considered dashing down to the steamer dock, buying a fare to New Orleans, abandoning my home and this humiliating turn of fate.
My panic was whittled to its sharpest point. I could have run away then and my life as I speak of it would have been of a wholly different nature. And I would have run away if not for my mother, but I just couldn't leave Mama behind to suffer through this catastrophe by herself. Being the youngest of twelve children, I still lived at home though my brothers and sisters had married and moved on long ago. As the youngest, my first instinct was to run around in circles, throw my hands up in the air, and cry out, "Where is someone who will look after me?"
Approaching my house slowly, I hesitated and rested my hand upon the front gate ghosting on its hinges. A group of creditors gathered in the shade of the hawthorn trees and upon seeing me, they lifted their tall silk hats respectfully. But I felt a hot spark of shame and lowered my eyes.
I ran inside and slid over the bare, scuffed floors. Ordinarily, there would have been a middle-aged butler in gloves holding the door open, but I didn't see the servants and didn't recognize any of the people here. Indeed, this didn't look like my house at all. The place smelled of unclean bodies and the halls resounded with the scrape of family heirlooms being dragged away.
From the look of things, the red blankets had been up since the previous day. I pushed through the crowd of strangers and climbed the stairs. Each footfall sounded as though I were dancing on a box. Flies buzzed through the open doors and windows. Upon reaching the first landing, I passed some Lexington farmers conspiring in low tones about buying the Negroes in a lot, preempting the broker before he could assign a price to them. Women knelt before a trunk, removing Papa's shirts and holding them up one by one.
As if walking through a nightmare, I peered into each empty bedroom searching for Mama. In my room, everything had been taken away except the linen blinds, mosquito netting, and the grass mat on the floor. As far as I could tell, my wardrobe was untouched. No one had taken the muslin bug sleeves that the servants had put over the candle sconces to guard against flyspecks. The old walnut floor humped up in the center as if a whale slept under the planking.
I entered the anteroom where a young widow in mourning weeds had thrown wide the doors of the wardrobe as she picked through my gowns.
"Those dresses are mine," I said, closing the wardrobe door.
"You bought all of them?" the widow asked. "Even the corsets? Because they look to fit me real fine."
"I don't think so. I don't think any of my clothes would fit you unless you fell off mightily. All of these are mine." I stepped between the widow and my wardrobe and folded my arms across my chest. "I would burn this house down in the dead hour of the night and go running out into the mud in my nightdress before I'd let you have these. Go on, now," I said, and she left without another word. Thus, in my first small victory of the day, I rescued my gowns from the rabble.
But discerning something amiss, I frowned around the room and gasped upon seeing the empty wall above the fireplace mantel. Some stranger had taken our family portrait, The Bullitt Sisters as the Fates. In 1834, Mama had commissioned Sully, the famous society portraitist, to paint me and my sisters sitting together in the front garden under an ash tree, wearing summer white dresses and doing needlework.
Sully had depicted us as limpid-eyed temptresses, which said more about him than it did about us. We four sisters had never, a day in our lives looked as wickedly desirable as we did on that canvas, where my eldest sister Mary held the distaff in a shockingly suggestive manner. Beside her sat Eloise, who drew a thread from the distaff as if to measure it, her birdlike head tilted aside and a gleam in her eye. And there, sitting between Mary and Eloise was me, all flushed and agitated as I reached with the scissors to cut the thread in Eloise's hands. Only my sister Anne had not been given a task. Anne Bullitt gazed adoringly at the three of us, her halo of red hair lit all over as if the artist had some premonition of her early leave-taking. Sully had engraved a piece of brass at the base of the frame with the title, The Bullitt Sisters as the Fates, thereby celebrating my sisters and me as irresistible sirens luring hapless men into our embraces before mercilessly cutting their lives short.
Well, I felt desperately anxious about that painting. It had given me comfort to know that wherever in the world my sisters might be, we were always together in one place, in spirit, if not in fact. But now some stranger owned my family portrait and she would hang it in her house and make up a story about my sisters and I being her cousins, or something ridiculous like that. Chewing upon my bottom lip in a fit of exasperation, I went to the window and drew deep breaths. My room overlooked the willow thickets, the cottonwoods, and the low swampy part of our land. The green skiff Papa had given me floated on the small pond. Out in the wetlands, I thought I saw Mama leading a calf along a marshy path.
I collected my baskets and then hurried down the backstairs intending to catch up with Mama and ask her how we had come to this ruin. I left through the back door, crossed over the stack yard where the horses stood in the paddock waiting to be turned out into the pasture, and sprinted past them out into the meadow. But Mama was nowhere to be found. Fretting over how I might save the little green skiff, I wandered toward the pond but felt overcome with anxious despair at the sight of it unmoored and adrift. I recalled my fourth birthday, remembered sitting in the boat while Papa held the mooring rope and the sun reflected off the water so that I could not recall his expression, only the glare of light where his eyes should have been.
I sat on the shore, unlaced my boots, and setting them side by side, untied my hat ribbons, and tossed the hat in the grass, then pressed my forearm against my mouth, smelling lily of the valley soap on my skin. Lily of the valley grew wherever Eve's repentant tears had fallen after she was banished from Eden. Mama always said that lily of the valley was the only perfume that was appropriate for an unmarried belle.
Kicking off my petticoats, I left them in a heap beside my hat and waded into the water, talking to the boat as if it were a living thing, "Right there. Don't move now." The rope floated like a bull snake, and I grabbed it and began paddling back to the dock, swimming with my head above the murky surface of the pond. There were flakes of green paint all over my hands, my ivory dress was streaked with algae, and my skirt draggled around my legs.
When I reached the shallows, I walked backward, straining and pulling. The rope scraped against my hands and then, for no reason at all, I felt wafts and flutters in my belly and my heart beating up around my ears. The blood drained from my head and pooled in my feet. Someone was standing behind me.
"Turn around, miss."
I recognized his voice; harsh and Eastern, it came from deep in his cheekbones behind his nose, with sentences like rapid bursts of musket fire. Rat-a-tat-tat.
"Turn around and look at me," he said.
And I did, brushing the hair from my face, staring straight at him, my eyes reflecting the shine off the water. I was thinking, I gave you up. When you left without saying good-bye, I gave you up for good and have tried to forget you ever lived.
Lieutenant Philip Kearny folded his coat over his arm. He wore a brown traveling suit, but despite his journey, his clothing was unwrinkled, his cravat crisply knotted, and his shirt, immaculate. He had auburn hair, a high-bridged nose, and under his strongly marked eyebrows, Lieutenant Kearny regarded me in a manner both eager and serious. Possessed of a keen intelligence, he impressed me as a man who reacted to any threat with swift efficiency and yet, something in his expression told me that I had somehow unsettled him. With his hat in hand and his aloof air, the entire effect was of a young man probably no more than twenty-six, but who behaved with the assurance of a man of forty.
We first met nearly three years ago at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where I was visiting my sister Mary. One autumn afternoon in 1838, I had been standing on a stepladder in the old orchard by my sister's house, picking apples and tossing them into a basket. And then Philip came striding down the grassy path, proud and swaggering in his dragoon uniform. He bowed, and I nodded. But as he walked by, he kicked the ladder out from under me. I went flying and so did the apples, but Philip Kearny caught me in his arms and declared that he would watch over me and protect me until the end of my days.
Like a fool, I had believed him. Never mind that my footing was secure until he knocked it out from under me. Never mind that I had been reaching up for the fruit I had desired when he came along. He courted me for eight months and everyone predicted that we would marry, but on the day I expected him to propose, he told me he was leaving the country by order of the War Department and hurrying off to a cavalry school in France. Two years had passed without a word from him and now I wanted to ask him...Why? Why did you make me believe you loved me? But my pride made me stubborn. I would not give Philip the satisfaction of pleading for an explanation.
I broke the silence. "Lieutenant Kearny, how do you do, sir?"
"I am fine, thank you, Miss Bullitt."
"I am in grave suspense," I knotted the rope of the boat to the dock and looked over my shoulder at him. "Did you buy anything at the estate auction?"
"I bought all of the paintings, you know, to keep them away from dubious characters. And I have a letter of introduction to your mother. I had no idea you and your mother had...I did not know you were in reduced circumstances."
"Mama is nowhere to be found. You may leave your letter of introduction with me, if you like, and I shall see that she gets it."
With a doubtful look, he removed the letter from his coat pocket and handed it to me. I broke the seal and the wax crumbled in my hands. "We can't put you up, nor board your horse. We've had houseguests who've stayed for weeks eating and drinking until they were laid out like dead hogs. It's one of the reasons we are in trouble now. Anyone can see our days of dispensing old-style Southern hospitality are long gone."
"I do not intend to impose."
Unfolding the single sheet of paper with a flick of my thumb and forefinger, I read the letter. In it, my sister Mary wrote that Lieutenant Philip Kearny had recently inherited the largest fortune in the history of the United States from his grandfather. My sister closed with,
"...and as the boy isn't even passably ugly, Diana really ought to give him due consideration."
"You must have high ranking among God's spies and snoops." He thumped the crown of his hat and studied my reaction.
"I am hardly spying or snooping by reading a letter you put in my hands."
"One intended for your mother."
An anxious stillness fell, as neither of us knew what to say next. I rolled his letter into a tube and rapped it against my leg.
He drew a breath, "May I call upon you, Miss Bullitt?"
"And where will you call upon me, Lieutenant? Here at the pond?"
"You do have a point."
"I guess I do." Misery oppressed me, and consumed by nervous worry over where Mama and I would sleep that night, I nearly forgot all about Lieutenant Kearny. Folding the letter, I tucked it into my wet waistband.
Philip shifted his weight and rested a hand on his hip. "Are you seriously considering anyone...anyone in particular?"
Sitting on the dock, and leaning back on my hands, I told a bald-faced lie. "Six local boys have begged me to marry them. Every last one of them doctors. Apple-eye boys who can't wait to put a ring on my finger."
"The very air is darkened with doctors."
"What was that you said?"
"Six suitors!" Philip gave me a sly look. "And where will your suitors call upon you in the days to come, may I ask?"
I blew a lock of hair off my forehead and felt perversely unreasonable. "Probably right here by this dock. I shall receive my suitors in my best dock-and-pond-gown." I patted a place beside me. "Now, come sit and tell me what bits of my ancestry you intend to pass off as your own. I am speaking of my family paintings, now."
He carefully arranged his coat and hat upon the dock post and with a neat snapping motion, tugged up his trousers and sat beside me. Philip unlaced his boots and then rolled his black socks into them, giving me a chance to admire his slender ankles and his long white feet with a faint line of auburn hair on the top.
I flirted a look at him because I was good at this sort of thing. But so was he. While in Paris and North Africa, Philip Kearny had probably galvanized French noble tarts every day of the week, drawing them in with his half-sad, half-amused expression and his baffling, elusive abruptness. Suppressing my old feelings of having been wronged and instead, letting nature take its course, I soaked my feet in the water. He kept his feet above the surface.
"What will you do now that you must break up housekeeping, Miss Bullitt?"
"Why, I shall buy the painting of my sisters from you."
"Ah, there is nothing I like better than a little wholesome negotiation. What will you give me for the painting?"
"Ever had Chantilly cake?" I motioned grandly to the cake basket at my side.
He scratched the back of his neck and appeared to think upon it. "No, I can't say as I have."
"The best cake in the world. I shall give you a cake for that painting."
Philip lifted the wooden lid and peering inside, sniffed the confection drenched in Lisbon wine. He scooped thick yellow butter icing into his mouth, grinning at me as he swallowed. "I'm afraid it's not enough. How will you earn your keep now?" His eyes twinkled with desire and I knew I had the advantage.
"I do not intend to starve in genteel poverty."
"Starvation ought not to be a problem for a doctor's wife."
I felt my cheeks grow hot; he'd caught me lying about my dismal marriage prospects. "Well now, Lieutenant Kearny, you have gone and paralyzed my womanly reason."
"Miss Bullitt? You really should consider...me."
"Because you think I have no other choice? I will forgive you for the insult, Lieutenant, as I reckon even the Lord excuses us for bad training."
The lieutenant tried to soothe me, made his voice tender and soft and his eyes crinkled at the edges as he concentrated on his speech. He tapped out his words, touching his forefinger to my wrist as he said, "Miss Bullitt, you must hear what I have come to say. Nothing would afford me more pleasure than to devote my..." But then, Philip stopped as if waiting for the wind to finish his sentence. Reaching for his socks, he tugged them over his cold feet and then hurriedly donned his shoes. When he gave no sign of continuing, I thought to nudge him along.
"You wish to devote your...what?"
He paused and lowered himself onto the dock. Sitting down again, he leaned close to me. I could smell the laundry bluing in his shirt, the celery scent of his mouth, and see every line in his lips and the specks of green in his brown eyes. I speculated that the lieutenant knew how to kiss a girl slowly and sweetly. He touched the top of my hand with his forefinger and traced a circle there. I fought down the burning heat in my belly and the impulse to fling myself at him and pin his shoulders to the planking.
"Shame on me for finding you interesting, Lieutenant."
"And why are you interested in me, Miss Bullitt?"
"It is the natural pull of evil, I do believe."
I gazed up at him, but did not move or give him a hint. He let his mouth fall open the slightest bit, calculating, taut, and breathless, deciding what he might get away with. He cleared his throat, slid a finger under his collar, and turned his head slightly aside. "I wrote some verse about how we first met."
I sincerely doubted this, for he was not a poetic sort of fellow. But Lieutenant Kearny stared fiercely at the opposite bank and, un-prompted by me, recited his poem, "In the autumn of the year the sunlight limned your face, and I told myself it was a trick of light that made me love you..."
Well, the pathos, the sheer awfulness of it -- and his pride -- won me over completely. In a fit of impulse, I touched his cheek and let my lips brush against his, hearing him exhale in a raggedy, involuntary sort of way. I kissed him on the mouth. Philip's beard stubble was bristly as a doormat. I had counted on him being gentlemanly and refined. I hadn't counted on him losing his self-restraint. But he threaded his fingers through my hair and began kissing me in earnest with his mouth open and pressing hard against mine. I felt a falling sensation in my stomach, and I wanted to tumble on top of him. Keep kissing me until I say mercy.
A shriek pierced the air. It was my mama.
"Diana Moore Gwathmey Bullitt! Diana! You, child! Diana! You, girl!"
I shoved the boy off. Dazed and bewildered, I sat up and looked around in a panic. Mama came running through the grass with her skirt knotted in her hands and her thin, fussy shoulders heaving with shock. Her fading gold spaniel curls bounced in rhythm with her step. An elegant fifty-nine-year-old Englishwoman from the Virginia Tidewater with fine features and tragic eyes, she dropped her skirt and let it trail in the mud as she gestured wildly at me, making a Separate! Separate from that man! motion with her hands.
Philip leapt to his feet and smoothed his hands over his hair. For a moment, he seemed not to know what to do. And then he stared across the water at my formidable mother, picturesquely indignant in her purple gown. He donned his coat, tapped his hat on his head, and pulled me to my feet.
When Philip spoke in his New York accent, my mama must have thought him devilishly foreign.
"Mrs. Bullitt, I am Lieutenant Philip Kearny."
"The Irish are not to be trusted!" Mama pointed at him and railed, "You are a scoundrel, sir! A blackguard! And for assaulting my daughter, I shall see you strung up by a rope around your neck and jerked heavenward to Jesus before the sun sets on this day."
"Mama! This is the young man who -- "
But Philip cut me short. "Mrs. Bullitt! I'll have you know I am too much of a gentleman to let your daughter adopt such scandalous conduct without marrying her."
And turning to me, he said, "Miss Bullitt, nothing would afford me more pleasure than to devote the remainder of my life to you and to protect you and to provide for you."
"What are you saying over there? Take your hands off of my daughter, you vile Yankee!"
I toed a circle on the dock, thinking upon Philip's proposal before answering him.
"Well, all right then. I say yes. I do, Lieutenant Kearny. I shall marry you."
Philip called to Mama. "Mrs. Bullitt! Diana and I are going to be married."
Mama clasped one arm about her waist, pressed her fist to her mouth and thought a moment. "Do you love her, sir?"
"I think so. Yes...that is...as far as these things go...I think...Yes."
"Can you provide for her?" Mama asked.
I rose on my tiptoes as if it would improve my hearing.
"Why yes, of course," Philip said.
"And where shall you live, sir?"
"We shall divide our time between Washington City and New York."
"You are taking my baby girl into Satan's Empire?" Mama touched her forehead as if feeling for fever.
"Yes, yes. I shall give Diana a house in Washington City, where we shall live while I serve the War Department. Also a townhouse in Manhattan, a country house on the Hudson, the finest equipages and gowns from Paris..." And with a wink at me, Philip added, "...and Diana shall have all of the cake she cares to eat."
"My, that's pretentious enough for anybody," I said, but I was secretly pleased.
Mama squinted up at him. "Diana shall require an allowance."
I'd never heard Mama speak of money before now. My mother was so immensely dignified she could hardly add numbers in her head, and subtraction was too vulgar an act for a grand lady descended from one of the first families of the Virginia Tidewater.
I drummed my fingers against my ribs and paced the dock, thinking of my new life in the East. Now that I would marry, my life's ambition had been satisfied and no longer would I have to worry over dying a spinster in a dusty attic. At that instant, I promised myself that I would be the most compliant wife who ever lived. I would strive to excel at every domestic virtue, yet grace my new husband's life with the shining light of my spiritual loftiness and my faithfulness to all of his life's dreams.
Ah yes, ah well. If young ladies were wiser beings, marriage would not be a divine institution.
Emboldened by her successful bargaining, Mama stepped forward and put her hands upon her hips. "Can you provide for her mother, too?"
Philip lowered his lids in a smart affected way. "Must I?"
"Be assured, her mother will visit but occasionally. I'll be of no bother to you, sir."
"That is hardly true of most people's mothers," Philip said.
"Very well," Mama said, calming a little and smoothing the frizz of blonde curls away from her temples. "I can think of worse fates than being pitchforked into marriage with a perfect stranger."
Almost immediately, Philip left and went to buy passage on a steamer, then searched around Louisville for the Reverend Shaw, whom Mama had recommended to marry us. In Philip's absence, Mama and I packed my clothes into goatskin trunks. We tucked bracelets and perfumes into the leather pockets, layering fragile silks and airy muslins with white paper on top of my nightdresses and linens. When we finished, Mama sat back on her heels, pinched a few dill seeds from a small snuffbox, and slipped them into her mouth to sweeten her breath. A quizzing glass hung from a chain around her neck and made a clicking noise against the bones of her corset as she moved about the room.
Surveying the dozen trunks lined up before the door, she said, "I wish I could give you a few of our people as house servants but they are all pledged to Mr. Walker."
"Mr. Kearny wouldn't allow it anyway, Mama."
"Goodness gracious, Kearny isn't an abolitionist, is he?"
"Oh no, but he hires his own people. Besides, I am happy just to have the portrait of my sisters as a wedding present. It is enough for me."
Mama laid out fourteen cotton petticoat skirts, lifting them one by one as I tied the tapers around my waist. She said, "Kearny has peculiar Yankee ideas and an uncertain temper. I suspect he has difficult requirements of a wife."
But I did not want Mama to taint my perfect happiness with dire warnings about Philip. I balanced on one leg and pulled a silk stocking over my calf, fastening it with a garter above my knee. "Mama, will you come with us? I know you have many friends near Washington City. You could come with us and make small trips and visit your kin in the Tidewater."
"No, child." Mama began brushing my hair, following each stroke with a smoothing hand down my back to my waist. "I shall go to your sister and the general." She plucked the hair from the brush, wadded it into a ball, and pitched it into the china hair receiver. "I am a good judge of character. Lieutenant Kearny stands between light and darkness, and I sense he is trapped between his desire to be a good and honorable man, and...his unspoken appetites."
"Well, I admire his many qualities." I held my arms above my head as Mama carefully tugged the muslin gown over my petticoats. I tweaked the cascade of white silk violets tumbling from the waist to the hem as Mama laced me up.
Her eyes were red and moist.
"Mama? Don't cry; please try to be happy for me."
"Now hear me, Diana. Tell Philip no once in a while. Now and again, say, no. Really, it isn't so impossible. Tell him you are indisposed, when he persists, and he will, tell him you must decline the favor. Else you will have a baby every year until you are fifty." She fumbled in her skirt pocket for a handkerchief, dabbed at her nose. Mama planted teary kisses on my cheeks, and then pulled me away, saying, "I hear Mr. Kearny downstairs, and the reverend too. Let's not keep them waiting."
Philip met me at the foot of the stairs with a bouquet of single-bloom Virginia roses that he had gathered from our own yard and wrapped in a dinner napkin he had found in the pantry. "A bride deserves a bouquet," he said, placing the flowers in my hands, "and I thought Virginia roses suited you."
Philip hurried me out the back door where the Reverend Shaw waited under the grape arbor. We were married at four o'clock in the afternoon under the garden trees. Strangers still lingered in the house, so we could not marry in the parlor as Mama wished and no one in Louisville ever married in a church. Church weddings did not become fashionable for another ten years. The buyers in the house leaned over the windowsills and watched as Philip and I were declared man and wife. Throughout, I kept sneaking looks at my new husband, admiring his handsome profile and congratulating myself on my good fortune.
Mama muffled sobs into her handkerchief. She had loaned Philip her wedding ring and he slipped it over my finger, murmuring that he would buy a proper ring for me when we arrived in the East. But I preferred Mama's gold band, worn down by her gentle hand to a thread on the palm side.
When it was all over, I skipped through my house for the last time. Fired with youthful exuberance and excitement, I did not mourn my old life and all of my concerns about bankruptcy had vanished. Mama led us through the hall to the front while the strangers called out and cheered us on our way, wishing us good luck and Godspeed as if they were in the wedding party. Mama and I embraced in the shade of the porte cochere, murmuring wistfully to one another.
Philip had thoughtfully hired porters to load my trunks and all of the family paintings onto a wagon. He ordered them to be more careful as they hurled my luggage onto the wagon, tossing blankets over The Bullitt Sisters as the Fates and lashing the picture down with rope. Before paying them, Philip inspected their work, frowning as he checked the knots and wrappings. Satisfied that my things were secure, he told the men to form a line. The porters brushed the dust from their hands and pocketed the money Philip gave them.
Then, Philip helped me up the metal steps onto the seat of the hired hack. I arranged my skirts and made room for him. He hesitated, bending over, his hat in his hand and a strange and fiercely possessive look in his eyes. "This is not what I had intended, Diana, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances."
"Oh, there is no need to apologize," I began, and moving aside on the seat, gazed expectantly at him.
But he said, "I never ride in carriages. Carriages are for women and invalids."
"And you won't make an exception? Not even this once?" I asked.
"No," he said. And with that, Philip tossed a spare blanket over my lap, tucking it around my legs and feet to protect my white dress and nodding to himself as if satisfied that I would not be soiled by the trip to the waterfront. He withdrew from the carriage and swung up into the saddle. He would ride alongside like a squire and lead his spare horse to the levee.
Mama climbed inside the hack, straightened the bonnet on my head and reaching for my veil, unpinned it and lowered it over my face. "Obey Mr. Kearny and do not vex him overmuch. Hold your temper. Understand his failings, forgive quickly, be mild and flatter him when he is in a bad humor and at all times, subordinate your will to his."
"But I thought you told me to decline the favor else I would have a baby every year? How can I decline him, yet obey him at all times?"
She glanced aside at my bridegroom waiting patiently on his horse and whispered urgently to me, "There is no contradiction in what I say. Husbands require a lot of help from their wives to make them behave like gentlemen."
"What sort of help?"
"You shall learn soon enough."
"Tsk, now. Write as soon as you arrive in Washington." Her heliotrope cologne surrounded us, her blonde curls brushed my cheek as she kissed me, and her bones felt light and birdlike as she hugged me good-bye.
I leaned from the window and watched her as she climbed down and turned to Philip. Gazing sternly up at my new husband with a hand to the brim of her bonnet shielding her face from the afternoon sun, Mama said, "And as for you, Mr. Kearny, remember that marriage is meant to bring mutual solace, not bondage. Tyrannical husbands make women rebellious wives. If I ever hear that you have been cruel to my daughter, I shall pursue you like Death in the Apocalypse. I shall find you and whip you as if you were my own son."
Philip straightened in the saddle and blinked as he considered her threat. Then, he tipped his hat to my mother. "Be assured, Mrs. Bullitt, my wife shall reign sovereign in her household."
"Good-bye, Daughter!" Mama raised her arm, her handkerchief fluttering in the breeze, and I looked back over my shoulder as my home receded in the distance.
The steamer packets lined up along the Ohio River while the Negro laborers dumped barrels on the wharf. Whistles sounded and the air smelled of coal soot. A crowd of travelers swarmed aboard the boats. As we would soon travel into the free North, the mate of the Cape Jessamine -- our honeymoon steamer -- forced the Negro crew off the deck and onto the shore, stabbing at them with his barrel stave, ordering them away from the gangplank to allow the Irish and the German workers to take their place on the boat bound northeastward. No captain would risk losing a valuable slave crew to the abolitionists in the North, and so the mate ordered the Negroes down the riverbank to a side-wheeler bound for the sugar coast.
Philip's pair of white horses caused a sensation as they were led up the gangplank into the stern of the boat, the roustabouts having a morbid fear of any white animal bringing bad luck aboard. As the whistle blew and the engines churned, work-worn women and spindling children filed onto the deck. Sweaty men jostled by carrying armloads of wood for the boilers. A clerk came running up the wharf with paper and charcoal in hand to write down a list of our belongings.
Philip Kearny settled his hat upon his head, surveying the levee, a man who knew that his will must be done, on earth as it doubtless was in heaven. A man of boundless energy, he never stopped moving, tapping his walking stick on the wharf planking. I studied my new husband, memorizing every detail about him, from the flicking motion of his buff glove to the wave of auburn hair under his hat. Philip nodded to the steward as he tucked the walking stick under his arm and removed banknotes from his money clip.
As we boarded the Cape Jessamine, Philip put me in front of him, elbowing aside men who drew too close. Porters dragged my trunks across the boiler deck amid passengers clamoring at the rails, thick as chickens in a pen. I could smell their habits and their homes rising from their clothing -- the tarry odor of coal smoke, geranium cologne, unwashed hair musky as pelts, and most prevalent, a top note of camphor oil that smarted my nostrils. We climbed up to the hurricane deck to a suite of cabins furnished with big cast-iron beds, tables, washstands, and settees.
The porter ostentatiously swept aside a heavy blue canvas curtain as we inspected our quarters. I hurried over to the portrait of my sisters wrapped in a bit of oilcloth, secured with hemp twine. Peeking under its cover, I was relieved to see it had not been damaged.
Philip gave the porter a withering look and shouted, "What? Where is the door of this stateroom?"
"But I am holding it for you, sir," said the porter, of the blue curtain.
"That is no proper door! It is a rag. I won't have my wife sleeping in an indefensible cabin!"
"No need to worry, sir, ain't nobody gonna trouble you. Ain't nobody gonna hear nothin' neither." The porter leered at me.
Philip lost his temper. He shoved the startled porter up against the wall. I gasped as my husband, with his forearm against the man's throat said, "I want a damned door on this room. Let's you and I go find one, shall we?"
And then, as calmly as if nothing had happened, Philip released the terrified porter, who rushed out of the cabin. Though astounded by the speed and violence of Philip's response, I was somewhat flattered, too. Something in his nature, the contrast between his elegant gentlemanly demeanor and the startling brutality of his response to such insults appealed to me, but I was too young and infatuated to understand the danger implicit in these contradictions.
He cleared his throat, rolled his shoulders, and then tugged at his waistcoat as he said, "Why don't you make yourself comfortable, Mrs. Kearny, until I return?"
With a bow, Philip left, and intent upon his purpose, stormed down the stairs to the lower decks.
While I waited for him to return, I tried to think what a bride ought to do. I could not unpack, for where would I put my things? I dared not undress, or change from my muslin gown into traveling clothes for fear someone might come in. Besides, I couldn't unlace myself and I had no ladies' maid to do it for me, which meant Philip had to unlace me. Mortified at this prospect, I told myself that it was not a thing to be thought of. Still, I paced and thought about it anyway. My sisters and my friends said wedding nights were supposed to unfold with decorum. The bride in a prim nightgown waited under the blankets for her groom to come in the door wearing an ankle-length nightshirt and carrying a candle. Well, that meant Philip must wait half-naked outside on the deck. I couldn't envision him doing that. Needing something to do, I lit the candles in the wall cressets and the lamp on the table. Pacing the floor, I tapped my fingertips on my lips and listened to passengers shuffling by, small children whining to their mothers and the workers shouting at one another.
Soon, a small troop of smiling waiters bearing covered trays and wine followed Philip into the cabin. And miraculously, Philip had persuaded a clerk to fashion a door for us from the lid of an empty coffin he discovered in the hold.
Satisfied with his improved surroundings, Philip beckoned me onto the deck. As the afternoon dwindled away to twilight, wild plum trees bloomed on the riverbank, the coal smoke flagged over our heads, and the rear wheel churned ragged foamy webs in the water.
Resting his elbows on the railing, he asked me to name the homesteads we passed, and I did, telling him everything I knew about the farms and the people who lived on them, all the while feeling his gaze searching my face. He listened intently as if his life depended on my every word, but he was only trying to put me at ease. As darkness fell, all of the lights on board were extinguished and curtains drawn over the cabin windows, for the pilot was so particular about his navigating view of the Ohio being obscured by glare that no man dared even light a cigar.
Growing weary of the sound of my own voice and thinking to draw him out, I asked, "What did you think of North Africa?"
He feigned reluctance, but he was flattered by my interest and bowing his head with a smile said, "The fighting was elegant, but as for everything else, I most assuredly do not miss it."
"And the women in Africa?"
He raised his brows, clearly amused. "The women in Algiers are completely veiled but for one eye as they walk to the baths with their servants."
"Are they beautiful?"
"I am not an admirer of one-eyed women."
I tried again. "But the nomad women in the deserts who live in tents and herd goats? Did you see any of them?"
Philip did not answer my question, but took my arm and led me into our cabin.
I waited uncertainly by the iron footboard. It was hot in our room from the burning lamp oil and candles. I plucked at the pointed seam of my bodice as Philip removed his coat and hung it upon the back of a chair, then unfastened his cuff links and dropped them on the table. Taking my hand, he brought me over to the bed and there, he sat beside me. I dared not meet his eyes, but looked directly ahead at the mosquitoes clustering on the cotton shade.
Finally, he answered my question. "Why, Diana, there are so many different tribes. There are the green-eyed Berber girls kidnapped by their lovers and the lean aristocratic Taureg women who dress in indigo blue and nothing else, so that the dye rubs off on their skin."
"Did you..." I began pinching the feathers under the counterpane until I could feel the quills snap.
"Did I...what?" He leaned around to look at me, daring me to ask the question.
"Did you have carnal connections with any of those women?"
"No, of course not."
"I don't believe you."
But he just laughed. And reaching behind me, he lifted the modest silk scarf from my shoulders and pressed his mouth to the small bones under the coil of hair low on my neck. I felt the hair on my arms rise as he began whispering to me, telling me what he wished for us to do. He expertly loosened the braided strings on the back of my gown and my bodice and corset fell open like a pink shell in his hands. I closed my eyes and shivered as he slid his hands around me from behind and rested them on my hips. And turning me onto my back, he lowered his mouth onto the linen chemise, leaving the wet imprint of his lips over the cloth over my breasts. Reaching for my foot, he clasped my left ankle, pushed the fragile layers of my pale muslin skirt up to the middle of my shin and began unlacing the slipper.
Philip's cuff links tumbled off the table and went rolling over the plank floor. He spoke softly as he unwound the last ribbon and, cupping the slipper, removed it from my foot. "In the deserts of Africa, the unmarried Taureg girls take as many lovers as they please, and a lover learns her body at her ankles and explores the fine bones of her legs and upward until he reaches her mouth. What do you think of that?"
With a wickedly lascivious glance, his cheek at my knee, his mouth at the garter and then my bare leg above the stocking, he disappeared under the layers of skirt and feeling a gentle nudging, I flung my arms wide and fell back into the pillows. For the first time in my life, I understood the true meaning of my sisters' whispering about marital bliss. His body was lean and finely muscled, with auburn hair on his chest, speckles on his shoulders from sunburn, and the muscles of his back and his forearms were finely wrought from years of riding and fighting. The bones of his hips were sharp as the blade of a trowel, and his legs long and lean.
Afterward, Philip slept with my cheek pressed to his chest, my leg across his, my fingers tracing the line of hair on his flat belly, as I listened to his breathing. To lose myself in a man like this was the sort of pleasure that life and God rarely allow us, and as I had been allowed to enjoy him by the state of Kentucky and my Maker how much happier could a woman possibly be? Not happier than I.
Copyright 2005 by Micaela Gilchrist
Excerpted from The Fiercer Heart by Micaela Gilchrist Copyright © 2005 by Micaela Gilchrist.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Micaela Gilchrist is the author of The Good Journey, winner of the Women Writing the West Award and the Colorado Book Award. She lives with her family in Colorado.
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